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Review: The Year 1905 at Philharmonic Hall *****

The crackle of guns, the doleful tolling of bells.

Shostakovich may not have been there in person (he was born the following year) but in his Eleventh Symphony you can practically smell the cordite and the keening cries in the frosty air outside St Petersburg’s Winter Palace on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in January 1905.

There’s perhaps no one better to craft the vivid narrative arc of this mid-century musical masterpiece than fellow St Petersburger Vasily Petrenko, reminding a packed Philharmonic Hall why the RLPO was dubbed ‘the best Russian orchestra outside Russia’ under his chief conductorship.

Surprisingly, this concert was the first time Petrenko had conducted Shostakovich’s Eleventh at Hope Street.

And in the event, he had to hold on a minute or two longer, as while it gave the Phil the chance to bring out some of its ‘Forever’ bells, there was chiming too ahead of the start in the form of a frustratingly persistent mobile phone ring tone from somewhere in the upper circle.

Petrenko waited patiently (and then one senses as time ticked on, not so patiently!) as stewards swooped in to deal with the disruption.

It could have set the tone for the next 60 minutes, but happily the orchestra’s focus never wavered in a performance shaped by Petrenko which married sweeping musical storytelling through four fluid movements with keen attention to detail.

There was a palpable sense of foreboding and uneasy calm in its opening adagio, with its trumpet reveille and timpani punctuations, and blistering, Imax-sized drama unleashed in the second movement as frustrated crowds met the rat-tat-tat of soldiers’ guns against the growl of bass notes in a relentless sense of fortissimo fury.

While ‘sturm und drang’ may be viscerally addictive, the eerie stillness of the ‘in memorium’ adagio which followed had its own impact on the senses, while the defiant final movement was a tour de force of triumph and terror – complete with a lovely cor anglais solo from Drake Gritton, giving voice to the revolutionary song Bare Your Heads before the final coda and those lingering, sonorous bells.

Above: Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO. Photo courtesy of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Top: Vasily Petrenko. Photo by Mark McNulty.

In fact it was an evening of revelation, with a remarkable performance ahead of the interval from violinist Christian Li, making his first but hopefully not his last appearance in the hall.

Li, who only turns 16 at the end of the month, plays with a maturity which belies his years and has already developed a wonderful layered tone as well as startlingly good technique.

You need both to do justice to Tchaikovsky’s emotionally intense and technically challenging Violin Concerto, and Li – a slight figure in lustrous bronze shirt – certainly did that, not least in an opening allegro of daring virtuosity which prompted spontaneous and widespread applause in the hall.

Li has a captivating, sweet singing tone with burnished lower registers which he deployed to great effect both in the allegro (alongside a breathtaking cadenza) and the melancholy second movement in which the violin was layered over the orchestra’s nuanced accompaniment, with delightful passages from flute and clarinet.

Under Petrenko’s expressive left hand the Phil created a subtle soundscape within which solo violin could stretch its wings – and stretch Li did in a finale in which sparks practically flew off the bow.

He couldn’t be coaxed into an encore, despite the Hope Street audience’s best efforts. But then perhaps along with the tone and technique he’s already learned the importance of leaving them wanting more.


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